Questions is a collaboration by Lucy Kempton and Joe Hyam. Poems are based on questions drawn from an agreed starting question and formed by answers, which contain and inspire the next questions. In response to Lucy's first question, Joe kicks off. This follows our earlier work in Compasses, archived here, where Lucy's photographs illustrate Joe's series of 50 sonnets under the title Handbook for Explorers.

Monday 1 March 2010

What's in the box?

Perhaps if I open it, let me see... Crack!
Leering and swaying and squeaking with glee
spiked on a bedspring, out will jump Jack.

Or is there a cat there, fluidly
slipping out, purring and curving - unless
it's dead, poisoned and rigid? Or might there be

a dog which has learned to be helpless
shuttled and shocked, carefully tortured
by a peer-reviewed high-priest of happiness?

If I turned out the box, perhaps I could
still find hope there, a rattling, lone
remainder, a tarnished coin, good

currency, tender still, though very much down
in value. But soft. You've already told
of a perfume of citrus-peel, blown

from the lands of spices, of lemon trees, old,
brittle, but fragrant still, contained inside bright
glossy red lacquer patterned with gold,

a tiny, dried wonder. And something so slight
can, for a moment, by alchemical grace
cast out all evils, put them to flight.

So cup your hands round it, and hold it to your face...
Where would you be, if not in this place?


Lucy said...

The cat was Schroedinger's.  Dead or alive, it was only ever hypothetical, a thought experiment, a paradox.  The dog, and the shuttle box, were Seligman's, and were not.  

The account of the experiments with the dogs and the shuttle box, which established the theory of learned helplessness, makes distressing reading, though this is very little remarked on. I was made aware of it in Mark Rowlands' book 'The Philosopher and the Wolf', which Joe put me on to, and which I can't recommend too highly.

Roderick Robinson said...

Technically and poetically ("fluidly slipping out, purring and curving") the poem is fine and I particularly admire (envy would be better) the sustained breathlessness of turning a sentence on to the next line or next stanza. I've tried, how I've tried, but my beat just disappears.

But surely this doesn't come with Tom's blessing. The cat may be theoretical (although I believe S did have a cat) and the dog real but the juxtaposition is inescapably anti-science. This is confirmed by "alchemical grace". And it's such a good poem. All I can say is I posted my recent, feebler, pro-science effort before I saw this. Must get back to my predestinate grooves.

Lucy said...

BB - In fact, I did cut a chunk out of it which I felt came across as very sententiously anti-science, which is not my intention. This is a poem, not a polemic, and I've never cared too much for poems which feel the need to shove a message down my throat, even if I applaud the message. I suppose feel a little in danger of being straw-manned here, but that can be a salutory thing, inasmuch as, if one is not to obligingly step up to the position one is being put in, it's necessary to consider what one really thinks!

I think I may have to go into this at more length elsewhere. The matters of affect, imagination and compassion and power and their relationship to science and human knowledge, why the image of the dead-or-alive cat has become so much more important in the collective imagination than the paradox it illustrates - would anyone remember it or even know about it if it were a plant that might be given water or weed-killer? - whether psychology can be true or good science anyway - and whether behaviourism, as either good science or psychology, should be forever consigned in shame to the dustbin as a monstrous abuse, ( Seligman it was too, who for a time, thought he could and tried to 'cure' homosexuality by means of electric shocks) all seem to me to merit a bit more going into.

But as I say, this is just a poem.

I very much appreciate, though, your careful reading of it, and taking the trouble to look for and respond to the meaning you could find in it. Re the enjambments (carrying the sentences over the line), it seems to me necessary in a tight form like this - chain-rhyming terza rima - if it's not to come out just sounding like irritatingly chiming jingle. I was encouraged to give the form another try after reading George Szirtes collection 'Reel', much of which uses it in quite a similar way. (Better, naturally.) You might enjoy it.

Tom rarely wanders over, and involves himself little in what I get up to here. However, your comment prompted me to aks him what he thought, and thence a good discussion, so that was a further benefit.

Thanks again for your faithful reading, interest and input, which is much valued.

Thomas said...

I have never believed that a person's spiritual growth should, or even can, be obtained at the expense of another's. I am not talking here of some airy-fairy form of mysticism, but all that goes into making a sentient being what they are, and that includes their physical bodies and senses.

It is a supreme arrogance to assume that because I am a human that I therefore have the right to treat other life-forms in any manner that I choose - including torturing them, for whatever reason.

In my opinion, most experiments carried out on animals are not only cruel, but bad science. We should beware our instinct to condone, simply because scientists - and others - are seen as some form of authority figures. Hasn't history yet taught us that lesson again and again?

Roderick Robinson said...

I share several of Thomas's sentiments and I regret seeming to side with animal experimentation. I note he says "most experiments" and there, surely, is the rub. But I accept his general argument.

The point I was trying to make - and what a luxury it is to have some elbow room on the subject - that poems are compressed expressions and, like those Japanese flower things that emerge in bloom when dropped into water, take on a life of their own when read by others. In this case I inferred something from the juxtaposition of three elements and in the end it doesn't really matter whether I "got it right" since there is no "right". You provided something and I responded. Poems may be kept secret or, if published, become a springboard for response. People have seen things in my verse which i never knew was there: I'm astonished and delighted.

As to the badness and goodness of science I favour goodness simply because it is one field of endeavour which is, by and large, self-regulatory. Oh things go wrong, horribly wrong, but eventually these errors are corrected by a combination of public opinion and other scientists. Lucy, I very much appreciate the time you took on this one (because it turns out you are what the Americans call a working stiff - a phrase I used to like basking in) and I'm now going to post something about laptops.

Lucas said...

This poem, Lucy, is set in an impressive intellectual frame yet it stands out quite clearly as an excellent poem, as you rightly say, simply as a poem. Its musical and rhythmic qualities - and as Barret points out - the way the lines flow on and pick up - are finely done.
Also the the way the stark cruelties it suggests or refers to are balanced by the beauty of the living and the exotic creates a tension, a sense of unresolved yet connected opposites which I like very much.